The latest outing from Ron Maxwell, director of the great “Gettysburg” and the not-so-great “Gods and Generals,” examines the Civil War from a completely different angle compared to his previous films. Instead of focusing on the generals and their troops as they fight the actual war, “Copperhead,” takes us far from the conflict to focus on a family in New York. The head of the family, Abner Beech (Billy Campbell,) is completely against the war, which is not an opinion that is looked upon kindly, causing his neighbors to label him a “Copperhead” (the term used for such people). As if matters weren’t bad enough for Abner, his son, Jeff (Casey Thomas Brown), decides to join the army, a decision that obviously doesn’t sit well with his father. As the story progresses, Abner learns just how dangerous it can be to have an opinion that many deem to be contrary to the preservation of the Union.
Having a film that looks at the Civil War through something other than its various battles is an interesting idea, and there’s certainly an intriguing premise at the heart of “Copperhead,” but this is one instance where poor execution ends up hurting the film far too much. For starters, there’s an overly-long period of exposition that makes it feel as though the film takes forever to get started, but even after the main plot is introduced, the screenplay by Bill Kauffman (based on the novel by Harold Frederic) goes about it in such a blasé manner that one gets the feeling that he just wasn’t that interested in the material. In fact, the first part of the film was not the only part to feel as though it could have been trimmed down significantly. At a runtime of about two hours, and with a lack of material strong enough to maintain such a runtime, there was a good amount of it that could have been lost to help with the generally slack pacing. Again, there’s a good story to be told somewhere in here, but Maxwell and Kauffman just couldn’t get at it, choosing to stretch out and suffocate what good material they had, resulting in a bland and tedious tale that would fail to engage even the most avid history buff.
“Copperhead” is presented in a 2.4:1 transfer of above-average quality. There’s the slightest hint of fuzziness in the picture, but to be honest, you probably won’t even notice it unless you’re looking for it. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is a different matter. Aside from being rather soft, there are times when the dialogue is hard to make out even when the volume is higher than normal (and no, I don’t mean because of the accents used in the film). Whether this is because the production budget was rather low or whether it was a problem with the actual soundtrack is unclear, but just know that the audio could have used a little improvement. Luckily it doesn’t hinder the film too much, so you’ll still get a somewhat decent experience.
Not only do we get a sub-par film, but also a complete lack of special features to go with it. Upon seeing the result, Maxwell, his crew, and the actors probably didn’t want to have much else to do with it. That, or there simply wasn’t any money left to put anything together for the release. It would be neat to see where their initial interest in the project came from, how it was developed, and why they chose to tell it in this way. Unfortunately, whether or not it did have special features ends up being almost entirely irrelevant due to the quality of the film itself. It’s rather sad to see Maxwell’s career continue to stumble after the greatness of “Gettysburg” way back in 1993. One of these days he’ll hopefully come across material that will once again show how much talent he can bring to the screen. Perhaps an adaptation of “The Last Full Measure,” the third book in the same trilogy as “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals,” is just what he needs to get his career moving again. We can only hope that he’ll get the chance in the not-too-distant future.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: The Wolf of Wall Street, The Best of Bogart Collection, Beneath, American Hustle, Kill Your Darlings, The Slumber Party Massacre, Inside Llewyn Davis, In Fear, Oldboy (2013), Cold Comes the Night, Gravity
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.